Is The 'Hapless' Dad Stereotype A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Parents mess up all the time. All parents. But with a low bar comes low expectations.
BarnabyChambers via Getty Images

One of the first adverts to be taken off air as a result of new rules on harmful gender stereotypes this week was for Philadelphia cheese – and shows two dads so entranced by a selection of cheese-heavy lunch options they absent-mindedly place their kids on the airport-style conveyor belt meant for the food.

The company that owns Philadelphia, Mondelez, argued that by showing dads with babies, they were going against stereotypes. But the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that it offensively showed them as “somewhat hapless and inattentive, which resulted in them being unable to care for the children effectively”. Mondelez argued they were in an unwinnable situation, where showing women with babies would have been similarly stereotypical. But let’s be honest, the advert would never have been made the other way round.

The clumsy, slightly rubbish dad stereotype – where he’s doing his best but just sucks – is one we know well enough that we pick up on it in a 17-second clip, while “mother who gets so distracted by cheese that she places her child in danger” isn’t.

We expect dads to be hapless and mums to be flawless.

In real life, shit dads – proper, proper shit dads – aren’t funny. They may be absent, neglectful, or abusive. And, perhaps because of that, people seem to have a low bar for what we expect from all fathers. The “slightly rubbish” dad gets a, “bless him, he’s trying” pass for not being actively terrible. If you’re present and taking an interest? You’re golden.

With a low bar comes low expectations. Half of the Mumsnet threads I read are stories about useless partners. Just recently, a woman asked if there were easier nappies her husband could use, because he was “finding putting a nappy on his child too hard”. Putting a nappy on your child is not too hard – but the bar is set so low, it’s somehow fine for a guy to say, “No, I can’t do this”. At least he had a go, right?

But if nobody expects anything of you, why make an effort? Those dudes can just keep “haplessly” getting nappies wrong and never be asked to change one again – and nobody will learn anything, nothing will improve, and their children will grow up thinking giving a shit is only for women because dads are silly. If “I know how many kids I have and am fairly sure of their ages” gets you clapped on the back and hailed as Dad Of The Year, why would you try any harder?

“With a low bar comes low expectations.”

Yet that’s what we see, time and time again. My generation grew up with TV programmes showcasing useless dads who spent their time lying to their wives and generally being rubbish. Think Married With Children’s Al Bundy, Home Improvement’s Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, Everybody Loves Raymond’s Ray Barone, Family Guy’s Peter Griffin, not to mention Homer Simpson – that’s thousands of TV hours teaching us that dads try to get away with stuff, secure in the knowledge their wives will fix it all and do the actual parenting.

It’s the same in films, with comedies like Grown Ups, where dads spend their time getting up to all sorts of silly scrapes while their patient wives roll their eyes and do all the work. Bradley Cooper’s character in the Hangover films has kids but he never mentions them, phones them or seems to care about them when they aren’t physically present. The movie Bad Moms (which makes it very clear that all of the characters are actually very good, dedicated mums) is funny. A movie called Bad Dads would be horrific.

Dads – dads who give a shit – we can do better than this. We can be better than this. Parents mess things up all the time. Everyone does. Sometimes it’s down to stress, sometimes it’s down to fatigue, sometimes it’s down to selfishness or ignorance. But it’s never down to which set of genitals you possess.

If you’re a dad and you do a bad job, it isn’t because you’re less naturally attuned to parenting than your partner. Other than pregnancy, giving birth and breastfeeding, there are no tasks one parent is inherently going to be better at than the other. Everything else is a decision.

Some decisions are out of your hands – a mum who’s been on maternity leave might, by dint of spending more time with their child, have certain insights a father long returned to work doesn’t – but if you don’t know your child’s shoe size, or their teacher’s name, or you don’t think it’s worth spending five minutes learning how velcro works, that’s on you, buddy.

“Hapless” isn’t acceptable. Let’s stop perpetuating this stupid idea, and get ourselves some bloody haps.